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How we should shape the future of education: A Q&A with Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson is kind of a big deal. He is the most viewed speaker on Ted Talks of all time, with his three talks on education, creativity and what’s wrong with the current teaching model being viewed by more than 300 million people in over 150 countries. In light of his upcoming visit to New Zealand, Idealog chats with him about how we can improve the education sector, as well as the countries leading the way in this area. 

Robinson has spent his career challenging the way children are being taught in schools and advocating for how creativity and innovation can be better integrated into the educational curriculum, businesses and other organisations.

In 1998, he led an inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy in Britain, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements.

His argument is that people are educated to become good workers rather than creative thinkers and students who are curious, energetic and think outside the box are ignored or even reprimanded.

Though his most famous talk, Do schools kill creativity?  took place in 2006, the message he’s been peddling for decades has become more poignant than ever in present day due to the disruption modern-day technology is creating for children's job prospects.

People are increasingly worried that kids aren’t being equipped with the right skills to face this uncertain world, but Robinson has some suggestions.

Robinson is visiting New Zealand in March and will be speaking at two conferences on March 19 and 20 in Auckland.

The first talk will be about revolutionising our education system, while the second will cover creating a culture of creativity and innovation in business.

See our Q&A with him below.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, you said there needs to be more creative forms of education that speak to our children’s abilities. Can you expand on what you mean by this? How can education change to help children thrive in the unpredictable world we live in today?

I think the part of my argument has always been that the systems of education we have now – and I’m not speaking in criticism of teaches or schools, I’m talking about the system as a whole – the way the system works now was shaped by the architects of mass education during the industrial revolution. The system still bares the imprint of that. We have schools that are predicated on linear models of human development.

There’s ideas of utility and of two types of subjects in schools: useful ones and as it were, useless subjects. You see that very practically in the way it’s organised – high stakes is languages, math and science, low stakes are physical health, art and music. Why is that apartheid built into the education system? It’s because some subjects are thought to have more direct bearing on economic success. You need maths and science to get a good job, you don’t need art or music unless you’re being a musician. There’s an assumption of utility, which I think is mistaken. There’s an idea that science and maths are hard disciplines, while physical education and the arts are softer disciplines – softer skills.

All of these things derive from the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution. They’ve created a system of education that is no longer fit for purpose because the world is changing so drastically and so fast that these systems can’t cope with it.

You only have to look at the absurdity in America of the second amendment argument (I live there now) and the way that people cling to the idea that they should be able to carry guns around in urban shopping malls. There’s this fierce argument about the human right to carry a combat automatic weapon, as if it's enshrined in the basic rights of being a human being. That’s a concept that was created in one age to defend yourself with the weapons of that day being vigorously implemented in an age where it’s no longer suited with these extraordinary weapons we have now. We need systems of education which value the diversity of human talent and are not based on the homogenisation of ability, as that creates a sense of inability. We live in a world of rapid social complexity, so our education systems have to connect to all of that. We have to rethink the old system.
 

Are there any countries around the world who are doing a great job of reshaping their education systems? Who are they and what changes have they made?

I think that Finland is getting a lot of attention for making serious efforts to apply these changes on a national scale, but there are genuine attempts around the world to think about how education can be shifted. In China for example, they have a big hill to climb to move beyond the cultural traditions of education, but there is some sense that the current model isn’t fit for purpose. I’m involved in a network of countries which are working towards change on a smaller scale, such as Scotland and Ireland. It isn’t that I would ever claim to be a lone voice here in the wilderness, I’m not, but there’s not enough happening politically. Part of my argument is there’s no point waiting for politicians for figure this out. The most important social change comes from the ground up, like the #Metoo movement. That didn’t come about because members of congress in America thought it would be a good thing to advocate the rights of women. But we can see these really important social shifts and those changes are happening, and as I travel around I can see all kinds of agitations happening around students, teachers, and in the business community.

You tweeted the Feversham primary academy example of embedding music into every part of the school day, which some would view as an ‘experimental’ take on schooling. Is this a direction you’d like to see more schools heading in?

It’s not experimental for me. Certainly, in my professional lifetime, which goes a while back (pushing on 50 years) I’ve been involved in these conversations since long ago. Montessori in the 20th century was talking about this stuff long before people were arguing for a more diverse education system, and how if you focus on one bit of education, you don’t get the result you expected. Schools that put students under pressure to just improve math results and drop everything and just do more maths – the evidence is it doesn’t work like that, it depletes their energy for learning and it doesn’t work. If you level the groove and have a more energetic, engaged and vital approach to learning, you get a much better sense of energy. I’ve got a book coming out for parents in March that shows what parents can do to improve education and why dance is as important as mathematics. If you say that to people they look at you as if you’ve lost it, but I’m serious. Dance has tremendous social roles, cognitive roles and cultural roles in society. Our schools are suffering under a wave of depression, anxiety and stress of young people, and some of it is to do with intense pressure in parts of the curriculum. Social media is also adding immensely to the anxiety people feel about their own identity and their relationships. Well, it just so happens dance is one of the ways is getting people physically in contact with each other.

How can we equip these children with certain skills to prepare them for this uncertain future? Do you think creativity is one of these skills, and is it possible to teach that, or is something children naturally arrive at when engaged in the right process?

In my book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, I outline competencies that people need in education, and there’s at least eight that I would point to. I think it’s much better to think of education not in terms of separate subjects or test results, but what do people need to understand and able to do. Education is about helping children understand the talents they have in them and the opportunities in the world around them, and it’s a way of organising how to think about it. Creativity, critical thinking and communication are essential to any education. Creativity is always important, but it’s going to become more important as the number of people in the world multiplies and AI takes away forms of work and living. We are heading to tumultuous change in the world around us, and education is one of the key ways we can work towards that.

  • Find out more about Sir Ken Robinson's upcoming visit to Auckland here

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